Premise: As the people of Anguis celebrate the Veriditas, the ceremonies involved around the holy Arbor proceed even though it seems to be withering more than ever. During the Congressus, there is a surprise attack on the city of Heartwood by mysterious water warriors who lay waste to the city and many of Heartwood’s holy knights. They are repelled, but paid with many losses.
After all of this happens, a cache of lost documents reveals more about the religion and about the Arbor than the people have ever known, and it may change everything they believe. With this new information, the knights form groups to search for and activate the nodes of energy scattered throughout the land, while one group must follow the water warriors to retrieve the stolen Pectoris, the heart of the Arbor.
As the leaves begin falling from the damaged holy tree, the very life of the land is tied to the success or failure of these quests. And there are those besides the water warriors who would see their parties fail, including perhaps one of their own.
Themes: Faith is one of the main themes in Heartwood, as people have worshiped the holy Arbor for centuries, until the time when ancient documents are uncovered that negate everything the people of Anguis have believed. These documents put life as they know it into a new frame of reference, including their origins and the origins of the water people. The Arbor is still tied to what they know, just not in the way they have believed.
Unity between people of different backgrounds and geographical origins, but also between the people and the environment, are given a new perspective as they are united on a single quest to save the land. Generalizations about people from certain places are also questioned when members of these parties don’t conform to the stereotypes of their people.
Family loyalty and friendship are put to the test as character origins are uncovered, new abilities are learned, and romances begin. Dolosus learns who his real father is, but how will it effect his loyalties to everything he has known?
Pros: A few of the characters were interesting and conflicted enough to keep me engaged and there was enough stuff going on that I wanted to see how everything wrapped up (if at all). The story begins as a typical epic fantasy and dives right into the quests for the different parties. There is a lot to chew on to keep readers engaged. At least one of the main character deaths felt noble and not pointless, even if it basically adds a deus ex machina element to the story.
Cons: Heartwood has too many characters and I kept losing track of who is who and what they were doing. Because there are so many characters, some of them lack personality and I found myself not caring if some of them succeeded anyway. There were so many story arcs that I had a hard time telling who was supposed to be the real main protagonist until the very end. There was way too much telling instead of showing in Heartwood, with the omniscient narrator telling us what characters think instead of having them act accordingly. On top of everything, I could’ve done without the raping and torture scenes. The idea that questioning faith isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but to label those who hold to their faith unswervingly as out of touch or outright ignorant is in itself dismissing faith as an ideal. The entire premise of the book is based on this idea that faith can be trumped by random ancient documents that just happen to appear out of nowhere at the most opportune of times explaining exactly how to save the world.
Recommendations: Too much telling instead of showing for too many characters on too many quests made Heartwood hard to follow, hard to swallow, and lacking in the kind of depth that makes good epic fantasy excellent. Characters are everything and Heartwood relied too much upon archetypes to make me care about these characters. The idea is good and with some major changes this had the potential to be much better. There were also too many instances where things occur that just happen to advance the story in favor of the “good guys”. For a first epic fantasy it is a nice ambitious effort that falls a bit flat, especially to dedicate 566 pages of your life to. And there is nothing wrong with believing in something with only faith as your guide.